100th ANNIVERSARY OF the Royal Canadian Navy
Milner, Marc, Sea Classics
Celebrating the Canadian Navy's long and often controversial histroy
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One hundred-years ago, on 12 January 1910, the government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier introduced the Naval Service Bill. After a third and final reading on 4 May, the bill received royal assent and Laurier, who had been prime minister since 1896, achieved one of his fondest dreams - the establishment of a Canadian Navy.
Laurier's plan called for a fleet of five cruisers and six torpedo-boat destroyers. This was a tidy little squadron capable of effective patrolling off Canada's coasts, and big enough to establish a Canadian service, with a shipyard to build and maintain the fleet, operational bases, recruitment depots, training schools, and a Naval college. A century after its founding, Laurier would be very pleased indeed with the "tidy little fleet" - and its extensive infrastructure - that now serves Canada so well.
The path to that capable national Naval service, however, was by no means certain, and Canada learned the hard way that only a Canadian Navy can look after its maritime security. Laurier's ambition to build a large and distinct national service foundered in the 1911 general election. His scheme was too big for Quebec isolationists, and too puny for English Canadian imperialists. Sir Robert Borden's new Conservative government attempted to redirect funds to the construction of British battleships before 1914, and the Navy languished. Only the institution itself, the Royal Naval College of Canada (RNCC), and two aged cruisers, Niobe and Rainbow, acquired in 1910 for training purposes, endured. Fortunately, the ships came with British officers and crews who pined for repatriation. Without them, the Navy would have collapsed, since more Canadians deserted the Royal Canadian Navy prior to 1914 than were serving in it. As the RCN atrophied and Niobe rotted alongside the wharf at Halifax, only Rainbow, small enough to operate, enjoyed an active life policing the seal industry off the West Coast.
The First World War demonstrated the need for a Canadian Navy. In August 1914, when the powerful German Asiatic Squadron - five modern cruisers - threatened to descend upon British Columbia, only Rainbow stood in the way. Her captain, Cmdr. Walter Hose, was ordered to intercept them and admonished to "Remember Nelson and the British Navy." Armed with shells packed with black powder or sand (for training purposes), Rainbow may have been within 50-mi of one of the enemy fight cruisers off San Francisco. But the Germans "escaped" and Rainbow was saved a glorious and futile end. The German squadron had gone south, where it destroyed Adm. Kit Craddock's force off Chile in November - a battle in which four RCN midshipmen died, the first Canadian Naval fatalities. The British finally caught and destroyed it off the Falklands.
In the meantime, the British Columbia coast was guarded by Canada's first submarines, purchased by the provincial government at sea in the dark of night from a Seattle shipyard with a fiscal equivalent to the entire annual Naval budget, and by the arrival of a Japanese warship.
In fairness, the imperial fleet provided coverage for the East Coast in the early months of the war, when the threat from enemy cruisers was greatest. Niobe participated in these cruises until 1915 when her personnel were needed to man a growing fleet of smaller vessels developed to meet the increasing threat from long-range submarines. When U-boats arrived in Canadian waters in 1917 and 1918, the imperial fleet did nothing to help, and even failed to provide timely intelligence. The Americans sent modest assistance. Canada, however, was largely on her own, and the RCNs East Coast Patrol - a fleet of trawlers, drifters, and ex-yachts - could do nothing to stop the large, heavily gunned U-cruisers as they cut a swath through the fishing fleet. In the process, they made a Naval convert out of Sir Robert Borden. …